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Ovechkin and Oshie Help Caps Blank the Avs, 3-0

Posted on 18 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin made no mistake about who the best player on the ice was on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. The Gr8 scored the game winning power play goal in the first period off of a nice Dmitry Orlov feed and assisted on T.J. Oshie’s second tally of the night late in the third period to close out a 3-0 Caps victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

The Caps improved to 2-0-1 on this young season and they’ve taken over first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Ovi was everywhere in this one with nine shot attempts, five of which were on net, three takeaways, two hits, and a whole new rash of penalty minutes (three minors). His goal and assist were his first points of the season and his line with Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov had 15 of the 40 shots on goal the Capitals would throw at Semyon Varlamov in this tilt. If not for Varly, it would’ve been more of a blowout.

Oshie (two goals) led the Caps with six shots on net and he was downright dominant on the boards and in front of the net. His first goal was a power play marker in the slot that came off of a sweet feed from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington’s power play looked really strong against Colorado going two for five and improving it on the season from John Blutarsky’s grade point average (0.0) to 15.3% (2 for 13) overall. Special teams were strong in this one for the Caps since they also blanked the Avalanche on all three of their shorthanded situations.

The Caps have now played 185 minutes of hockey and have allowed exactly one even strength goal and just three overall. With Braden Holtby, who was honored in the pregame for his 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winning season with his adorable family present, sitting this one out to prepare for Florida on Thursday and the Rangers on Saturday, Philipp Grubauer received the call between the pipes and he posted his first NHL shutout. Grubauer didn’t have to make too many big saves, but he made them when they counted and stopped all 18 biscuits he faced. Yes, you read that correctly, the Avalanche only had 18 shots on goal.

Part of that was the fact that Colorado did the Capitals a huge favor by knocking off the Penguins on Monday night in overtime and then coming in tired for this game. The other factor was Washington’s dominant skating and effort. The Caps were simply all over the Avs from the opening puck drop, outshooting them 20-5 in period one, and never really gave Colorado a chance to win the game.

The closest opportunity they had to get in the game was late in period two when Nathan MacKinnon had a wide open cage, but missed the net when the puck rolled on him. Had the 2012 #1 NHL pick scored there, it would’ve been a 2-1 affair, but he misfired and the Capitals once again gave up minimal chances in the final frame to provide Grubauer with likely the easiest shutout he’ll ever have.

Going up and down the lineup, it was hard to find a Washington player that did not perform well. Orlov had a highlight reel hit on Avs superstar Matt Duchene and played a strong two way game. His shot is a real asset to the offense. Brett Connolly received his first sweater of the season and had some quality scoring chances. Overall, #10 had four shots on goal and four hits in 11:47 of ice time. He fit nicely on the line with Justin Williams and Lars Eller. Tom Wilson, playing with Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle, had a quality game and he got under the skin of future NHL Hall of Famer, Jarome Iginla, and coerced #12 to take an instigator penalty in the middle stanza. That infraction was costly for the Avs since Oshie notched Washington’s second tally of the night on the ensuing power play.

On defense, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen each played over 22 minutes while Orlov and Karl Alzner were right around 19 minutes. Brooks Orpik, who was +1 and very solid on the back end, logged 16:29 while Nate Schmidt saw just under 13 minutes of action. Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have been able to rotate their defensemen fairly well in the three games this season, which should help keep everyone fresh and healthy.

Simply put, this was a complete effort and strong performance from the Caps. In the three games they’ve played, they have looked very good and have started quickly in all of them. Faster starts and a killer instinct were things this team wanted to work on this campaign and so far, so good. Their only blemish was losing in the skills competition in Pittsburgh, and those things are coin flips.

On Tuesday night, the special teams were back clicking and Washington was doing a nice job of putting pucks on the net with traffic. Those types of things add up to lots of victories.

Most importantly on this evening, the Captain came to play and he was downright dominant. The Gr8 showed that when he’s focused, he’s the best goal scorer this game has ever seen.

Notes: Shot attempts were 61-36 for the Caps, that’s pure domination…Marcus Johansson had two power play assists…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-27, Backstrom went 13-4 and Beagle was 6-3…no Capital played less than 10 minutes and none played over 24 minutes, that’s balance…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:42…the Avs were 2-0 coming into this game…Washington is in Florida on Thursday at 7:30 pm and home against the Rags at 7 pm on Saturday night.

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Are You Ready To Take A Chance Again With the Caps?

Posted on 11 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been five months since the overtime goal that ended the Washington Capitals season in Pittsburgh. The Penguins would go on to win their fourth Stanley Cup and each time they have done so they have knocked off the Caps en route to hoisting Lord Stanley.

That was not supposed to happen last spring. No, everything shaped up to be the Capitals year from training camp to a Presidents’ Trophy and right up until a three-zip games lead on the Flyers in round one. Washington then had to work extra hard to send Philadelphia to the golf course in six games. Game one against Pittsburgh in round two saw Washington’s T.J. Oshie exploit Olli Maatta for a hat trick and the Caps were up 1-0. Things were still looking good, but then, to quote John Cougar Mellencamp, “The walls came crumbling down.”

An ill advised hit on Maatta led to a three game suspension for Brooks Orpik in game two (and knocked the Pens weak link on D out of the lineup) and an injury to Karl Alzner further weakened the Capitals blue line, allowing Pittsburgh to use their superior speed to take over a close series and crush, once again, any dreams of Washington winning the Cup.

It was a painful finish and the summer was long. Many Caps fans needed that duration to move past that devastating loss. Some may never get over that defeat, it was that stinging. Even Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan remarked to me during the Sweden-Team Europe preliminary game at the Verizon Center in September that he will never get over it. I get it, I’ve been watching this team find ways to not get it done for over 40 years, it is hard to take, at times.

But now it’s time for another Capitals hockey season.

The grieving is over, it’s done and finished. It’s time to look ahead once again, but by learning from the past.

So for Caps fans, the start of every hockey season since 1974 has to feel invariably like the lyrics from this old classic song from the legendary Barry Manilow:

And I’m ready to take a chance again
Ready to put my love on the line with you
Been livin’ with nothing to show for it
You get what you get when you go for it
And I’m ready to take a chance again with you

Yes, it’s time to take the chance again on this hockey club.

As for learning from defeat, General Manager Brian MacLellan once again did his job this summer and improved the Capitals roster by making it faster. He traded for center Lars Eller at the draft and added forward Brett Connolly as a low cost free agent. Gone are Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, and Michael Latta.

With the addition of Eller, Washington is as deep as it has ever been at center with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller, and Jay Beagle, in that order. When you look at the wings the Capitals have, especially in the top six, with Alex Ovechkin, Oshie, Andrei Burakovsky, and Justin Williams, this club can be explosive. MacLellan brought in Eller to improve the “top 9” and the current plan is to have Eller center Marcus Johansson and likely Tom Wilson. “Willy” is in a pivotal season and it’s time for him to take a big step forward offensively. He’s shown flashes of potential, but he has to be consistent and he must find a way to put more pucks in the net.

In training camp, 21 year old Zach Sanford from Boston College had a marvelous few weeks and earned himself a spot on the opening night roster sending the likes of Stan Galiev and others, such as Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Thomas, and Jakub Vrana to Hershey for more game time and development.

In goal, the Capitals are rock solid with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby between the pipes, backed up by Philipp Grubauer. Holtby admitted over the summer that he did suffer an injury in the opening round series against the Flyers, which explains some of the slight drop off in his play in that Penguins series.

As for the Capitals blue line, it is the same as last spring, but the club is counting on more from Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to improve the overall back end, especially from Orlov, who aspires to top four minutes. The question is can he be consistent and learn to avoid the big mistakes he’s prone to make that lead to opposing goals? Orpik is now 36, and even though he’s in great shape and eager to get over his nightmare 2015-16 campaign, the league is faster at a time when he’s battling losing more foot speed. Bottom line, the blue line depth is Washington’s biggest question mark. Everyone knows what Alzner, top 12 NHL defensemen John Carlson, and the super solid Matt Niskanen can do, so it’s all about the growth of Orlov and Schmidt plus the ability of Orpik to stay relevant in an up tempo league.

Are the Capitals better than last year? On paper, I’d say yes with the addition of Eller and the experience gained by Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Orlov, and Schmidt. Those four players had great to solid regular seasons, but then sputtered in the post season. Hopefully they’ve learned what it takes to follow up a strong regular season with an even better playoff performance, because ultimately that’s where you’re measured in the NHL.

As for the team itself, to include the coaches, well they need to be better prepared for games. The slow starts that plagued this team so often in the past, need to be eliminated. Too often this hockey club allows the other squad to dictate the game before they decide to start playing. You rarely see the elite Championship teams do that in pro sports (see Patriots, New England). Washington must learn from what the Penguins did to them last spring and play the same way, regardless of the score. They need to find the “killer instinct” — they have the skill. That’s why their “will over skill” training camp tee shirts are very appropriate. The Capitals MUST ditch their laissez-faire approach to games and learn to come out firing and take the will of their opponents.

Letting clubs hang around, like the Caps did with the Flyers last spring, leads to more injuries and subpar play. That must be a thing of the past.

It’s a mindset and Washington, who has as much; if not more, talent than any team in the NHL, needs to improve the mental part of their game.

Last season the Capitals earned 120 standings points. I’ve stated they are a better team heading into 2016-17, but will they surpass that point total again? Not likely, but I do believe they will once again win the Metropolitan Division.

As for the rest of the Metro, here’s a look at each team in order of predicted finish:

2nd: Pittsburgh – they are the defending champs and to win the Cup you still have to go through the Penguins. They have the same team from last year minus defensemen Ben Lovejoy so they should be right there in the spring. The recent concussion that Sidney Crosby incurred at practice last Friday will likely keep him out of action for at least a game, but that is a smart decision by those in Pittsburgh. Sid skated on Tuesday, but given that the Pens will make the post season and it’s only October why rush a guy back who has a history of concussions?

3rd: Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist will be 35 in March. He showed some signs of his old self in the World Cup of Hockey, but overall he’s slowing down and his consistency will be in question. New York is still paying for going for the Cup the last several years so they are in salary cup trouble. They lost Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle on the blue line and are left with some slow footed dudes back there (see Girardi, Dan). Up front, they traded Derek Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, primarily to save cap space, and added past Capital killers Nathan Gerbe and Micahel Grabner. They also signed NCAA free agent Jimmy Vesey.

4th: Flyers – Philadelphia brings back basically the same lineup they had against the Capitals in the first round last April so I expect them to continue to improve unless injuries hit one or more of their key players (Claude Giroux, Jakab Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere).

5th: Islanders – New York lost Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin at forward. Those are some big losses. Their blue line is fairly strong and they added Dennis Seidenberg to it. In net they have Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Halak was superb in the World Cup of Hockey. He’s known to have hot streaks, but can be injury prone and inconsistent.

6th: Devils – New Jersey traded defensemen Adam Larsson to Edmonton for former NHL #1 draft pick, Taylor Hall, so New Jersey should have more offense. Cory Schneider is great in net, but this team has a questionable blue line and some young players cutting their teeth in the NHL at forward.

7th: Hurricanes – Justin Faulk and 19 year old Noah Hanifan are a nice start on defense and up front Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen, and Elias Lindholm are three talented players aged 24 and younger, but this club lacks the depth to earn a playoff spot. They’ll play hard every night though, so teams that take them lightly will be in trouble.

8th: Blue Jackets – If the World Cup of Hockey proved anything for USA Hockey, it’s that the game has passed Coach John Tortorella by. Why John Davidson and company hired this dinosaur to be their bench boss last October after firing Todd Richards is beyond me? They have two superb young defensemen in Seth Jones and Ryan Murray and up front they boast the talented Brandon Saad. After that, their forwards are a mix match of styles with too many slow plodders filtered in. They do have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, but can he stay healthy?

The NHL regular season slate opens on Wednesday with four games, but the Caps will begin their season in Pittsburgh on Thursday at 8 pm. I don’t expect Crosby to play, which is disappointing. On Saturday at 7 pm, Washington has its home opener against the Islanders.

Drop the puck!!!!

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Sep 14, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA;Team Russia center  Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates with the bench after scoring a goal against Team Canada during the third period in a World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game at CONSOL Energy Center. Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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Canada the Team to Beat in World Cup of Hockey

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The World Cup of Hockey is now officially set to commence on Saturday, September 17th with all games played over the upcoming two weeks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Who’s going to win? Well that’s pretty easy, Canada. They have the best overall team and the home ice.

But you still have to play the games and if the pre tournament action is any indication, then this is going to be one heck of an event. All eight teams won at least one time in their three World Cup tune-ups. Some of the games were downright played at NHL playoff intensity level, with USA-Canada on Friday night being the most noteworthy. The Americans played a strong physical game, received excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, and took advantage of a rusty Carey Price to win, 4-2. The Canadians then returned the favor the next night in Ottawa, winning 5-3 (Quick and Price did not play).

Canada then needed overtime to defeat the Russians, 3-2, on Wednesday night to finish 2-1. USA, playing at the Verizon Center on Tuesday evening, raced out a 3-0 lead that could’ve been five or six zip if not for Finland goalie Pekka Rinne, before hanging on to a 3-2 victory.

Both the USA and Canada are in group A with Team Europe, who pan caked Sweden, 6-2, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Czech Republic, who knocked off the North American speedsters on Wednesday afternoon in the first of a doubleheader at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Group B consists of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the North Americans (USA and Canadian players aged 23 and under).

The top two squads in each group will advance to the semifinals where there will be a single elimination round. The top team in group A will play the runner up in group B while the first place team in group B gets the runner up in group A.

So there is a scenario where USA and Canada could meet in the finals, with the World Cup of Hockey being decided in a best of three games matchup.

Bottom line, this is going to be some really exciting hockey to watch.

Now, without further adieu, here are my picks for each group.

Group B:

First place: Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead a talented forward group that is thin on the blue line. But they have some great goaltending that starts with Sergei Bobrovksy. If “Bob” gets hurt or struggles, then Semyon Varlamov is more than capable of coming in and shutting the door. This group sets up well for the Russians. They are bigger up front than the other three squads and I don’t see any of the other three teams having a blue line that can match that offensive talent.

Where it could go wrong for Russia: I mentioned their blue line, but to me, the biggest question mark with this squad is the coaching. Going back to 1980, when Viktor Tikhonov yanked Vladislav Tretiak in net after one period in Lake Placid, we’ve seen so many head scratching coaching decisions from this federation. In the pre tournament action, the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Kucherov line was outstanding against the Czechs, but coach Oleg Znarok moved Kuzy off of the top line and to a wing, at times, in Wednesday’s game against the Canadians. Anyone who watched the NHL last season knows that Kuzy is a sensational playmaker with the puck. Putting him in position on the wall where he will rely on others to give him the puck coming out of their own zone makes very little sense.

Second place: Sweden. Many of the so-called experts are going with Sweden to win it all, but I watched the Swedes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and I was not impressed. Yes, they have a very talented and mobile defense led by Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, but that whole blue line was a turnover machine, along with young forwards such as Filip Forsberg, in their loss to Team Europe. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t get much help in front of him and he wasn’t very good either in net. He’s 34. Up front, the coaching staff seems to rely heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line. They will try to cycle you to death. Nicklas Backstrom is a rock up the middle for Sweden and I don’t think he’ll get kicked out of this tournament for using ZYRTEC like we saw in the Sochi Olympics in 2014. That galactic screw up has left several in the NHL with a bad taste in their mouths over how that whole silliness went down. The NHL is controlling this event, so I don’t think we’ll see something stupid like that in this tournament, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did tell me on Wednesday that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved with this tournament. Sweden has the talent to come close to Canada, but I’m not seeing it and there are legitimate concerns about King Henrik in the cage (cue Coldplay’s Viva La Vida).

Where it could go wrong for Sweden: In addition to concerns about Hank in net and the blue line turnovers, the defense is not configured to clear the front of their own net. If I’m coaching in group B I’m sending a steady diet of players to the top of the circle on the Swedes and daring them to move my forwards out of there. I also don’t like the fact that they left Marcus Johansson off of the roster. Marcus can do so many things in the lineup yet they excluded him and took players such as Jakob Silverberg, Mikael Backlund, and Carl Soderberg who don’t have the experience or versatility that Jojo brings. Big mistake Sweden, big mistake.

As for Finland and North America, I still like both of these squads despite not picking them for the semifinals. Finland could squeeze in if Rinne plays at the top of his game, he’s that good and big in the cage. North America has some really fun and fast players. If Coach Todd McLellan gets his players to play smart and not turn the puck over, then they could sneak in, especially if Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray continues to play well in net.

Group A:

First Place: Canada. They have the best roster, hands down, in this tournament. They will be playing at home. They are experienced having won gold in both Vancouver and Sochi. They have an excellent coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock. It’s almost a given that they will win this event.

Where it could go wrong for Canada: They’ll make the semifinals, and that is where they are most vulnerable if they run into a super hot goalie. But in a three game set, in either the preliminary round or in the finals, they are just too deep to be beaten. I give the Americans the best chance to take them down in the finals, but they will have to have Jonathan Quick pull a Mike Richter in net.

Second Place: USA. The American roster has been much maligned by several of the supposed experts in the media, but I’m not buying it. This club, put together by Kings GM Dean Lombardi, is built perfectly for this type of tournament on an NHL sized rink. They have great goaltending, led by Quick, a very mobile and strong two way defense, led by John Carlson and Ryan McDonagh, and a set of forwards that can hit and grind out goals with players like team captain Joe Pavelski and T.J. Oshie. They also have some top notch skilled snipers like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are coaching this team and both have won Stanley Cups for a reason. Torts may not have shown any bench boss magic over an 82 game season in awhile, but a short tournament like this is right up his alley.

Where it could go wrong for USA: They could struggle to score goals if they don’t crash the net. Europe has a “can get really hot” goalie in Jaroslav Halak and the Czechs will start Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the zone in the cage recently, as well. In order to beat those guys, USA must get lots of traffic.

As for the Czechs and Europe, they are long shots to advance, but if any could do it, my money would be on Europe. While they are slow on the back end with the likes of the chippy Zdeno Chara, they are coached well by Ralph Krueger, who was a joy to cover on Wednesday night and was an advisor on the coaching staff for the victorious Canadian team in Sochi. Europe has one of the best forwards in the NHL in Anze Kopitar along with some other snipers like Tomas Vanek and the young Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, who had a hat trick at the Verizon Center against King Henrik.

Like I said earlier, this is going to be some intense hockey. The tournament starts at 3:30 pm on Saturday afternoon with USA taking on Europe on ESPN2. Canada plays the Czechs at 8 pm on ESPN News.

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World Cup of Hockey: Ranking the Goaltenders

Posted on 08 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Day one of the pretournament games for the World Cup of Hockey didn’t disappoint at all. In the first afternoon tilt, Finalnd’s Olli Maatta beat Sweden’s Jonas Enroth on a two on one rush in overtime to lead the Fins to a 3-2 victory over their archrivals. In the second matinee, Alex Ovechkin’s Russian squad took 3-1 and 4-2 leads and then hung on behind goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s 29 saves to defeat the Czech Republic, 4-3. In the main event on Thursday night, Team North America, comprised of Canadian and American players all age 23 and under, smoked a slow looking Team Europe, which consists of all European players not from Russia, Sweden, Finland, or the Czech Republic, 4-0. North America was extremely fun to watch with their high speed game.

As for the Capitals who suited up and played on Thursday, the Gr8 and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both held pointless in 15:17 and 15:57 of ice time, respectively. Ovechkin did have three hits. Russia’s Dmitry Orlov had an assist and led his team in ice time, with 20:12. Nicklas Backstrom was also held without a point in 16:58 of ice time and he went 8-7 on face-offs.

Friday night has one game, and it is a big one: USA vs. Canada from Columbus, Ohio at 7 pm on ESPNU.

On Wednesday night, I provided my World Cup of Hockey blue line rankings. Now we take a look at the goalies from each squad. Keep in mind that this is a SHORT tournament and having a hot goalie is very important to win, so I give more weight to those teams who I believe have net minders who are prone to hot streaks. Depth is important too, because if one goalie is off of his game, it’s paramount that you have a quality backup.

So without further adieu, here’s my rankings of each team’s goaltending from worst to first:

Eighth – Team Czech Republic – Peter Mrazek (DET), Michal Neuvirth (PHI), and Ondrej Pavelec (WPG). Each of these goalies has the ability to steal a game or two, but there’s no long term success history for any of them at the NHL level, and especially in this big time type of a tournament.

Seventh – Team Europe – Jaroslav Halak (NYI), Tomas Greiss (NYI), and Philipp Grubauer (WAS). Halak looked pretty rusty in the game against North America. He battled injuries last spring and if he doesn’t recover quickly, Greiss or Neuvy will see the cage. Halak has gotten hot in the past, but that was many moons ago.

Sixth – Team Sweden – Henrik Lundqvist (NYR), Jacob Markstrom (VAN), and Jhonas Enroth (TOR). Markstrom and Enroth are not very good and King Henrik is now 34 years old. Sure Lundqvist has shown the ability to get in the zone and steal several games in a row, but we haven’t seen that since the spring of 2015 when he helped the Rangers rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the Caps. This is Sweden’s biggest weakness.

Fifth – Team North America – Matt Murray (PIT), John Gibson (ANA), and Connor Hellebuyck (WPG). Murray plays so big with his solid positioning and he looked to have not missed a beat in his debut against Team Europe on Thursday night. He’s won a Stanley Cup, which none of the Sweden, Europe, or Czech Republic goalies can claim. Gibson played very well in the World Championships a few years back, so he’ll be the backup.

Fourth – Team Russia – Semyon Varlamov (COL), Sergei Bobrovsky (CMB), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (TB). This is a really strong trio and all have big game experience. Each of them has the ability to get hot. I’m guessing “Bob” will be the starter. He battled injuries last season and Varlamov has a history of groin issues, as well.

Third – Team Finland – Pekka Rinne (NAS), Tuukka Rask (BOS), and Mikko Koskinen (KHL). It’ll be Rinne first and if he falters, Tuukka will take over. Both are goalies that can get extremely hot and dominate for several games, so that makes them dangerous. The good news for Rask is there are no games at the Verizon Center in actual tournament play, he’s never won in the phone booth.

Second – Team USA – Jonathan Quick (LA), Ben Bishop (TB), and Corey Schneider (NJ). All three are very good goalies and can get super hot. Quick is the likely starter given his two Stanley Cup rings and experience in the Sochi Olympics, where he helped the USA to only fall 1-0 in a semi-final game against Canada, one in which they had no business being that close in.

First – Team Canada – Carey Price (MTL), Braden Holtby (WAS), and Corey Crawford (CHI). This is a no brainer. They have the last two Vezina Trophy winners, including the 2014-15 MVP in Price and a two time Stanley Cup Champion in Crawford. Yes, Price is returning from injury, so there’s questions surrounding him, but if he can’t play then either the Holtbeast or Crawford have plenty of talent and experience to do the job. Canada is flat out loaded at every position.

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Holtby End

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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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Ovie Game 5 Pens

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Ovechkin, Holtby, and Oshie Help Caps Force a Game 6

Posted on 08 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line, the Washington Capitals received huge performances from their stars in a 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Alex Ovechkin was an absolute beast in this contest with a goal and an assist, T.J. Oshie had the same, and Braden Holtby made 30 saves to force a game 6 at the Consol Energy Center on Tuesday at 8 pm.

Wow, what a hockey game!

Both teams left it all on the ice in this one and it was the battle of superb forechecks for the first 40 minutes. After a great start by the Caps, the Penguins put on a clinic with their 1-2-2 pressure forcing Washington into poor puck management and turnovers throughout the later half of the opening stanza. The shots on net were 12-4 for the Pens after 20 minutes, but shot attempts were 25-21 for Pittsburgh since the Capitals missed the net 10 times.

In the middle frame, the Caps did a better job of breaking out by swarming the puck and using the high glass or lob over the Penguins defense. That forced Pittsburgh to do more retreating and allowed the Capitals to carry the play. Washington out shot attempted the black and gold, 26-19, and took a 2-1 lead on Oshie’s rebound of another strong Ovechkin shot. Justin Williams then pounced on a Pens turnover and beat Matt Murray five hole to give the Caps their 1st two goal cushion of this series. The lead could’ve been extended more, but the Caps missed the net 12 additional times, including some great chances for Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom.

In the third period the Capitals played smart using a 1-3-1 type of setup in the neutral zone and, as a result, Pittsburgh had to dump the puck in way more than they wanted. The Caps continued to swarm the loose biscuit and that helped them win a lot of the battles against a speedier team.

Pittsburgh didn’t have many quality chances in that last frame as the Caps played with desperation.

Desperation is what the Caps will continue to feel, because a Penguins victory on Tuesday closes this series out.

Pittsburgh got Kris Letang (30:11 of ice time) back after a one game suspension and his play stepping up in the neutral zone was a big factor early.

The Caps, however, will get Brooks Orpik back on Tuesday after his three game suspension. His veteran leadership and presence should help stabilize a Washington back end that has made too many big mistakes in this series.

On Saturday night though, the Caps defensemen were very solid and the only goal allowed by Washington was while they were shorthanded.

The Capitals received stellar goaltending from the Holtbeast, including back to back huge stops on Patrick Hornqvist (pad save) and Justin Schultz (glove save) late in period two. #70 was dialed in, like his teammates, and they’ll need to be in game six.

Pittsburgh still is in the driver’s seat in this series since the Caps have no margin for error. However, coming into game five, Pittsburgh was 8-0 lifetime against Washington in previous such occasions.

Washington will need to bring their best game if they want to have a chance at extending the series, once again.

Desperation, that’s what every Capitals player has to bring to every battle on every shift on Tuesday night.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 27:28. He was outstanding, along with Karl Alzner (25:02). John Carlson had an assist in 24:50. He was dominant, as well…final shot attempts were 69-58 for the Penguins, but that was due to 3rd period score effects…Tom Wilson only played 7:20, but he drew a key slashing penalty on Ian Cole that led to Oshie’s PPG. Willy also was super on the PK and late in regulation. The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage while the Penguins went 1 for 2.

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Oshie Hat Trick

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T.J. Oshie’s Hat Trick Tally Wins it in OT for the Caps

Posted on 29 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

T.J. Oshie’s wrap around, hat trick completing goal 9:33 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a thrilling 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in game one of their best of seven series that began at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

Wow, what a hockey game!

The pace to this one was incredible and if you took your eyes off of the play for even a second, you probably missed a scoring chance. The Penguins are as good as advertised, they play fast and they continually go for the long pass to try and take advantage of their jet like speed.

On the flip side, the Caps want to play a much more deliberate game and force the Pens to deal with Washington’s superior size.

It was an epic battle and both teams, in the opening salvo, had their periods where they dominated the play.

Pittsburgh was really good in period two and stronger in period three, while the Caps, after a shaky first two to three minutes, owned the first period and the overtime.

Fittingly, shot attempts ended up 77-76 for the Pens, so it shows you just how close this contest was. In the opening frame, the Caps played their brand of heavy hockey doling out 17 hits to just seven for the Penguins, this occurred while Washington had a 32-22 shot attempt advantage and a one goal lead. The Caps tally came on a three on one rush when Andre Burakovsky buried the rebound of a Jason Chimera shot.

But something happened on the way to the forum in period two. Pittsburgh continued to attempt their stretch passes and the Capitals didn’t help themselves by committing too many turnovers. As a result, the Pens scored two goals in less than a minute just past the game’s midpoint to seemingly take over, with the second being an all world top shelf backhander from Evgeni Malkin. Washington was getting outskated and they were struggling to handle the Pens speed and pressure, at that point. But Oshie made a great play to get around Olli Maatta shortly after a defensive zone draw and #77 raced in alone on Matthew Murray (31 saves) and beat him short side, top shelf just 33 seconds after the black and gold had seized a one goal lead. Coach Barry Trotz stated afterwards that the Oshie goal was huge in terms of getting his club to settle down.

In the third period, Oshie struck again, this time on the backhand, after Alex Ovechkin (1 assist, 4 shots on goal, and seven hits in 25:01) made a nice play to get him the puck. That was just 3:23 into the final frame, but once again turnovers did the Capitals in and Nick Bonino, who was the best Penguin on the ice, snapped one by Braden Holtby (42 saves) following a defensive zone giveaway with 11:18 remaining in regulation. From there the teams traded chances, with Ovechkin nearly scoring on a backhand move with just over three minutes to go, but Murray made a super pad save.

In the overtime, the Caps really amped their game up and carried the play, out shot attempting the Penguins, 15-8. Washington did a super job of getting pucks deep and putting a strong forecheck on the Pens defense, and that allowed them to keep the biscuit in the offensive zone until Oshie was able to close the deal and give the Caps the early lead in this series.

Again, wow, this was one heck of a hockey game!

Both teams really brought it and I see this potentially being a battle for the ages. The Caps need to do a better job with their puck management in game two and they also need to bring the body more. Coach Barry Trotz commented afterwards that he thought his club played lighter than he wanted in periods two and three.

The Holtbeast was a also a difference maker stopping 42 of 45 shots. Washington would like to cut that shots against number significantly down in game two, which would indicate more of a grinding style that better suits their personnel.

One thing is for certain, game two will not be a boring one. The Penguins will attempt to do whatever they can to steal a game on the road while the Capitals try to hold serve at a raucous Verizon Center.

Notes: Kris Letang led both teams in ice time with 34:02. He had an assist on Malkin’s goal, doled out seven hits and blocked three shots…Washington’s ice time leaders were Matt Niskanen (32:13) and John Carlson (29:49). Both are rock stars on the back end. Karl Alzner logged 27:56 and Brooks Orpik returned from injury to play 25:56. Nate Schmidt (-2) and Dmitry Orlov (-1), were used sparingly and played just 12:13 and 5:44, respectively. Coach Trotz was clearly not happy with Orlov’s play on the first Pens tally. #9 was abused by Bonino at the blue line and then he knocked Schmidt out of the play allowing Ben Lovejoy to get an easy rebound marker…the Caps lost the face off battle, 46-39. Mike Richards, who centered Burakovsky and Chimera, was 12-5 while Jay Beagle went 12-7. Nicklas Backstrom (+2) was 7-20 and most of those were against Sidney Crosby (19-9)…Oshie and Ovechkin were both +3…game two is at 8 pm on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

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Game Six Backy

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Caps Win the Series as Holtby Shuts Out the Flyers

Posted on 24 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 26 saves behind another dominating 200 foot performance from the Capitals, who made the only goal of the game from Nicklas Backstrom stand up to extinguish the Flyers in game six, 1-0.

The Capitals will now move on to play the red hot and fast Pittsburgh Penguins later this week while the cheap shot artist Flyers will have all summer to hone their tactics on the golf course. It is always fun to knock off that team, which promotes Neanderthal-styled behavior and hockey on the ice, but more on them later.

Washington won this series with team defense by allowing only six goals in six games. The Holtbeast had two shutouts and only permitted five non empty net goals, one of which came off of his own teammate in game five. The Caps top three defensemen, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner, were absolutely fabulous in this series. They were physical and Carlson showed why he’s a top ten NHL blue liner, in my book, with his defensive skills and offensive ability. He was downright sensational for Coach Barry Trotz in the six game series victory. Alzner is playing the best hockey of his career and Niskanen is just so good at both ends of the rink. His hitting ability is vastly underrated.

Another big part of the Caps team defense was the way their forwards were back checking when the puck came out of the Washington zone. The forwards routinely hauled back and stole puck after puck from the Flyers in the neutral zone or forced Philly into turning it over at the offensive blue line because the Capitals defensemen were able to step up and make plays. It was text book coverage all over the ice and Filthy had few odd man rushes in the series, as a result. They also had a minimal amount of quality scoring chances and the Caps set a franchise record with this performance in terms of fewest goals allowed in a seven game series (previous mark was 7 vs. Ottawa in 1998). Washington will need to maintain that type of defensive play against the offensively minded Penguins.

Michal Neuvirth was the single reason the Flyers were able to extend this series to six games. He was stellar in net in only allowing two goals in three games, one on a rebound by T.J. Oshie in game four and the Backstrom marker on Sunday, which he had no chance on. Alex Ovechkin made a super play at the blue line to get the puck to Marcus Johansson (six points in six games) and Jojo made a perfect pass to Nicky, who buried the shot into the yawning cage for the game winner at 8:59 of the second period.

Johansson was a big bright spot and a huge reason why Washington was able to finally bury the Flyers. The Caps had strong contributions up and down the lineup, especially from the bottom six forwards. Mike Richards, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, Jojo, and Jay Beagle were all at or near the top of their respective games. Wilson was near perfect in game six and the Flyers were flat out afraid of him as the series went on. He opens up space on the ice for the Caps forwards. If he plays like that and stays out of the box, he is a real factor in the post season when the games are tight and hitting really matters.

If there was a down area in this series, it was the second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky had the puck quite a bit, but by the end of the series they looked tired and a bit timid, at times, as they were getting taken off of the puck too easily on the wall. Justin Williams was okay at even strength, save for his four penalty night in game five. This was a bad match up for that line against the physical Flyers, but I expect them to have more favorable results against the Penguins, and they’ll need to do so.

In game six, the Capitals wanted to be more disciplined, and they were. Unfortunately, a friendly fire high stick by a Flyers player on Ryan White was called a double minor on Backstrom just four minutes after the Flyers had killed off a five on three for the Caps early in the second period with the game scoreless. I’ll give the zebras some benefit of the doubt because it happened so fast, but the replay clearly showed it wasn’t Backstrom or any other Caps stick that hit White in the nose. Shouldn’t the officials be able to use replay there to get the call correct? I’m all for automatic review of high sticking calls in the post season, especially the double minor kind. So please fix this NHL!

This incorrect call came at a critical juncture and it was made worse when the referees mistakenly whistled Matt Niskanen for hooking Wayne Simmonds right off of the ensuing face off in front of Holtby. Watch the replay of that one again, that’s just good defense there.

Coach Trotz’ crew was suddenly down two men for infractions that weren’t committed by them, but credit the mental toughness of this Capitals team. They didn’t flinch one bit. They worked hard and killed off the four minutes, including two minutes of five on three by only allowing three shots on goal, which the Holtbeast turned away. Beagle, Carlson, Alzner, and Richards were just superb on those kills. Richards, as he has done repeatedly in this series, was so good at dropping down to cover the back door on Flyers power play opportunities. His stick prevented Jakub Voracek from giving the Flyers the lead on the five on three.

With momentum gained on that crucial kill, the Capitals scored just two and half minutes later to set the stage for the final frame, where the Caps just kept the Flyers to the outside to preserve the victory.

When the horn sounded, this was one sweet victory for the Capitals and their fans over their arch rivals since 1974. Washington now owns a 3-2 lifetime playoff series advantage on the Flyers (wins in 1984, 1988, and 2016; losses in 1989 and 2008).

After the Caps domination in game five in a 1-0 loss that allowed Philly to pull within 3-2 in the series, there were factions in the media and the fan base that immediately shifted into the “Here We Go Again” and “Caps are Going to Blow It Again” mode. The “Capitals are Cursed” mantra was thrown around far too much for my liking. I’m not surprised by it coming from some of the media, that’s their job to stir it up, but it was frustrating and disappointing to see so many fans fall blindly into it. To quote Bruce Springsteen, many in the fan base need to simply “Show a little faith.”

I’ve been steadfast all season in my belief that this team is different from past Capitals teams and they have shown that throughout the season. This is the best Caps team ever assembled and coached, period. Yet the first sign of trouble we had too many breaking their legs jumping off of the bandwagon.

Where’s the mental toughness?

Fortunately this Caps team has it and it is different. There are eight players who weren’t on this roster last season when they lost to the Rangers in May; Oshie, Williams, Richards, Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney, and Mike Weber (who was excellent in 8:48 of ice time in game six). Those players have helped upgrade the talent and closeness of this club. Williams and Richards bring a wealth of experience (five Stanley Cups), too. There will be bumps in the road and it is the teams that stick together that fight through tough stretches and prevail. Again, show a little faith fans.

Finally, let’s talk about what it means to beat the Flyers.

Forgive me for not heeding Tim McGraw’s advice to “Always be humble and kind” here, because when it comes to the Flyers, all bets are off. They are despised by many and unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens fan base very much despises, Philadelphia is not respected, where the football team that is run by the Rooneys in Steeltown is respected. Flyers owner Ed Snider passed away right before this series began and the people who work for him have always pretty much been first class to me off of the ice from Joe Kadelec, Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor, Bobby Clarke, and Dave Brown on down, including Gene Prince, who used to run the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center press boxes.

But on the ice is a different story. Snider preached physical hockey and that’s okay, as long as it is done between the whistles. In this series, the Flyers crossed the line too many times. Simmonds cross checked Ovechkin in the back of the knee in game two and Brayden Schenn did the same thing to Kuznetsov in game four, with both coming well AFTER THE WHISTLE. They were bush league moves along with the intent to injure hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellmare on Orlov in game three, simply because the Flyers were being sore losers. The Capitals may have actually benefited by not hitting the empty net at the end of game six because it would’ve given the sore loser Flyer players time to get in at least another cheap shot or two.

Speaking of bush league and being sore losers, it was just two and a half years ago when goalie Ray Emery raced across the ice and jumped Holtby then started pounding him in a game the Caps would end up winning 7-0. It was disgraceful, but the dinosaur like fans in Filthy loved it and a media member made a bozo move naming Emery the game’s third star. That’s typical Philadelphia Flyer mentality. They’ve been setting the game back for 40 years on the ice, so they’ll get no praise from me.

Look, the Flyers overachieved this year and have some good young players, but they are cement heads on the ice and that leads to their overall reputation. As Niskanen repeatedly told me in this series, “it’s in their DNA.” They’ll continue to be nothing but losers until they clean that stuff up and shame on the NHL for allowing  too much of it to happen far too often. It also leads to many of their fans acting like babies and idiots on occassion, witness game three’s bracelet throwing spree. Simply put, on the ice, that team is pretty much classless.

But good for Coach Trotz for praising the Flyers season in his post game presser, he is a classy man as is Caps GM, Brian MacLellan. Those two know what they are doing and have assembled a roster that will go up against the vaunted Penguins, who own a 7-1 all time series record against the Caps. But none of that matters and the last time these teams met in the playoffs was 2009.

Again, this Capitals team is different. It is a challenging match up and Washington will need to play their game properly to win the series. This club is mentally tough and I’m not guaranteeing a victory, but the fan base needs to show a little faith, in fact a lot of faith, and stick by them as they go up against Sidney Crosby and company.

Oh, and one more thing, see ya Flyers!

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Neuvy Game 4

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Caps Late Charge Halted by Neuvirth

Posted on 21 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Philadelphia Flyers, behind 31 saves from former Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth, staved off elimination in front of a raucous, but much better behaved Wells Fargo Center crowd on Wednesday night. Shane Gostisbehere and Andrew MacDonald scored in the first 40 minutes for the Flyers and they held on for a 2-1 win.

The Caps lead the series three games to one with game five on Friday night at 7 pm at the Verizon Center.

Philadelphia came out flying and hitting and Washington was unable to match their intensity. In addition, the Caps weren’t executing on their zone exits and that allowed Philly to gain momentum.

“They were really coming trying to disrupt our breakouts, so that took away from our game,” said Matt Niskanen, who logged 24:16 of ice time in this one.

Taylor Chorney, who was in for an injured Brooks Orpik, took an ill advised penalty just over five minutes into the game and it proved costly for Washington as “Ghost” scored from the point with Wayne Simmonds screening Braden Holtby (25 saves). Coach Barry Trotz saw some contact by #17 on Holtby, and there was, so he challenged the call, but the referees deemed it wasn’t enough to overturn it.

The Flyers second goal, which came at just under four minutes into period two, hit a Caps player on the way in, and it was the result of Washington not working hard enough and giving the Flyers too much space in their own zone.

In the final frame, the Flyers sat back and the Caps really came at them. T.J. Oshie scored on the rebound of a Matt Niskanen shot before three minutes were gone. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom did a super job of creating traffic in front.

The Capitals attack continued with speed throughout the period and Neuvirth, who had a super easy first 40 minutes, made his best stops on Tom Wilson on the doorstep and Mike Richards from point blank range. Neuvy had 12 saves in the final period to earn the win.

Washington became the more desperate team in the third period, but it wasn’t enough for a series sweep.

“We’re going to have to have that level of will and compete right from the drop of the puck on Friday. We should be excited about going home with the opportunity to close the series in five,” added Niskanen.

The Flyers crowd was certainly a factor in this one and now Washington gets home ice on Friday.

“They feed off of the crowd here. We have an excellent home crowd so we’ll be excited to go home and get the right match ups too with home ice advantage,” finished Niskanen.

Niskanen is spot on. The Capitals need to come out and dictate the pace of play, rather than react to what the Flyers are going to do. Washington is the better and bigger team, they need to announce their presence with authority, early and often, on Friday night to not let this series go any farther.

Notes: Shot attempts were 41-41 through two periods and ended 76-47 for the Caps…Washington won the faceoff battle, 29-27. Kuznetsov was 9-5…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, but only two in the first 30 minutes. Overall, he only had two shots on goal…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:23…the Flyers were 1 for 2 on the power play while Washington went 0 for 2…Scott Laughton crashed hard into the boards in the 1st period and left on a stretcher. He was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons…Brayden Schenn got away with a dirty cheap shot on Kuznetsov in period two. He slashed hard at the back of #92’s legs while Kuzy had his back to Schenn after a whistle. Both referees, Wes McCauley and Francois Charron, did not see it, but the cameras did capture it. It was a gutless move and there is no room in the game for that.

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Holts Richards Flyers Game 2

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The Holtbeast Wins Game Two for the Caps

Posted on 17 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

In hockey, great goaltenders find ways to carry their team to victory when they aren’t anywhere close to their best.

On Saturday night, against the Philadelphia Flyers in game two of this opening round best of seven series, Braden Holtby did just that for the Washington Capitals.

The Holtbeast stopped 41 out of 42 shots, including 19 in the opening frame, to lead the Caps to a 4-1 victory and allow Washington to head up I-95 on Monday night for game three with a two games to none series lead.

Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson scored on the power play and Washington’s penalty killing unit, which starts with Holtby, was stellar going a perfect four for four on the night in 4:58 of shorthanded time. 67 seconds of that time included a two man advantage for the Flyers in the opening frame, but the only biscuit that got by #70 was from Jakub Voracek in the middle frame after the Capitals were up 2-0. Usually the team that prevails in a five on three situation wins the hockey game, and that was the case on Saturday night at the Phone Booth.

The Caps knew the Flyers would be the more desperate team after Washington’s dominating game one victory and Philadelphia played like it. I’m not sure if the Capitals talked themselves into being outplayed, but they certainly were for many stretches of this one as the Flyers had their legs going to win the shot attempt battle, 80-48?

Quality scoring chances were much closer and according to War on Ice, the high danger quality chances were 13 apiece, and 9-4 for Washington over the last two periods (h/t to @ThePeerless).

But the Caps players knew afterwards that this was not one of their quality performances. They looked slow on the puck for numerous stretches and their gap control suffered, at times. The first period saw the Flyers out shoot the Capitals, 19-5.

“Not exactly the way we wanted to start, I don’t think we were as bad as everyone is making it seem because of the shots, I mean I think they stuffed it into Holts’ paddle maybe 10 times in the first period. Obviously that was a mindset for them, wanting to get more shots, they did a good job of that and keeping zone time. I thought we could have done a better job of eliminating the second chances, but it may be a little bit skewed from just shots from everywhere. I think we did a better job in the second and third [periods], but we knew they were going to bring it and they did. It was a battle out there,” said Carlson, who scored the game’s first goal on the power play and also added an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s tally to close out the scoring.

The Flyers certainly emptied the tank with a strong effort. They were all over the Capitals for the first 30 to 35 minutes, but after two periods, it was 3-1 on the scoreboard. In the third period, Philadelphia pressed and the Caps had numerous rushes to close this one out, but it took until Backstrom’s marker with 2:13 remaining to secure the outcome.

“You know that team, they’re going to be pressing big time…I like that we weren’t selling out for those chances, we were just battling, battling, and then the puck squirts out and we won the race for it, stuff like that, we weren’t just getting lucky,” finished Carlson, who logged 23:11 on defense with seven blocked shots and two hits, including one in which he creamed Brayden Schenn after #10 tried to smash him.

Holtby was the difference in the game and Steve Mason let in a real softie from Jason Chimera, a deflected long pass near the center line that somehow alluded the Flyers net minder via the five hole to give the Caps a 2-0 lead.

The Flyers goal came in four on four when Brooks Orpik played the man on a rush and Schenn reached around #44 and fed Jakub Vorachek for an in close goal. Washington didn’t do a good enough job of covering the opposition on that one.

But Ovechkin would answer about eight minutes later as he took a Backstrom feed and lasered one by Mason on the man advantage. Marcus Johansson (two assists) and T.J. Oshie made nice plays to help keep the puck alive in that sequence.

This was a big win for the Capitals despite not playing well.

“They played way better than we did, to be honest, if we didn’t have Holtby in net they would have probably been a lot to a little, early on. Holts stood on his head. We didn’t play well. We didn’t execute very well and we had timely goals on the power play,” said Mike Richards, who was +1 in 14:42 of ice time, including 2:30 of penalty killing duty.

On those four power plays, Philadelphia repeatedly tried to work the puck down low and then try a cross crease pass that normally would lead to a back door easy goal. Washington, however, had that covered according to Richards.

“The D did a good job with that actually because we try to pre scout them as much as you can and it’s hard because they’re trying different things. It’s nice to have good penalty killing, but it’s a lot nicer when you only have to do it two or three times a night,” added Richards, who had three hits, including a monster one on Nick Cousins in the neutral zone in the third period.

Following the contest, Coach Barry Trotz noted that despite the shot attempts and quality chance totals, there is only one stat that matters, the final score. Washington won that one, but they were not near their perfect or ideal game.

“They’re a desperate team and we didn’t match their desperation, to be honest. Now they’re in a bigger hole and they’re going to come more desperate at home, so if we don’t play a better game in Philadelphia in game three, we’re probably not going to have too much of a chance, so we have to play better, we know we can play better. That’s a good team over there with good players, they play hard, so we know we just have to be better,” finished Richards.

While I liked some parts of the Capitals game on Saturday night, on the whole, Richards is correct. Philadelphia wanted this game more and the Caps have to be better.

Luckily for Washington they have “The Holtbeast.”

Notes: the Caps won the face off battle, 33-29. Jay Beagle was 9-7…it was a physical game and Washington led in hits, 38-36. Ovechkin had seven of the 38…Washington was two for two with the man advantage in 1:16 of power play time…Johansson played extremely well and had two assists…Richards was super for the Capitals on Saturday night…Karl Alzner led the Caps in ice time with 25:08. King Karl had an assist and three blocked shots…Shayne Gostisbehere led the Flyers in ice time with 22:54.

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